Epilepsy in Dogs

What Is Epilepsy in Dogs?

Epilepsy in dogs is a common chronic neurological disorder affecting approximately 0.75% of all canines. This disease is usually the result of abnormalities in the brain that result in a dog having recurring and unprovoked seizures. Canine epilepsy can be either genetic, idiopathic, or brought on by structural issues in the dog’s brain.

A seizure is a temporary disturbance in a dog’s brain activity. During a seizure, the dog may behave abnormally and appear not to be in control of its muscles and body. Often, the dog will twitch or shake. An epileptic seizure will usually start and end suddenly, lasting for between a few seconds to a few minutes. Dog seizures can also be called “convulsions” or “fits.” In many cases, epilepsy is a condition that the dog will carry for life.

idiopathic epilepsy in dogs - idiopathic epilepsy in dogs symptoms
Poodle being examined by a vet after a seizure.

What Causes Epilepsy in Dogs?

There are several reasons why a dog may develop epilepsy. Epilepsy can be classified into two categories: structural epilepsy and idiopathic epilepsy.

The cause of structural epilepsy is found in the dog’s brain. Issues with the blood supply (such as bleeding, obstructions, and brain diseases) are often the underlying issues, along with trauma, infection, tumors, inflammation, and developmental issues. Occasionally, degenerative brain diseases may be the root problem.

Depending on the reason for structural epilepsy, metabolic disorders can also lead to degeneration of the brain. One example of this would be Lafora disease—a condition that leads to toxic substances accumulating in cells and causing a structural change in the brain. Lafora is the result of genetic defects and usually only affects Basset Hounds, Beagles, and certain types of Dachshund.

Idiopathic epilepsy in dogs usually occurs in younger dogs between six months and six years of age. Idiopathic means that there is no discernible reason for the disease. However, idiopathic epilepsy is often assumed to stem from environmental and genetic factors. Some breeds have a predisposition to epilepsy, which seems to indicate a hereditary component.

A diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy is arrived at when all other possibilities are ruled out. The dog’s medical history will play a part in determining this diagnosis.

what is idiopathic epilepsy in dogs - what is epilepsy in dogs
Dobermans are one of the dog breeds with a genetic predisposition to epilepsy.

Dog Breeds Prone to Epilepsy

The following breeds have a genetic predisposition to epilepsy.

Dog Epilepsy Triggers

Some dogs may be triggered into having a seizure, while others are not. Common triggers of epileptic seizures include lack of sleep, fatigue, and stress. Changes in the dog’s routine, thunderstorms, and visits to the veterinarian clinic are all potential stressors for a dog. To help identify any patterns and minimize the frequency of seizures, it may be helpful to keep a diary of any occurrences.

symptoms of epilepsy in dogs - signs of epilepsy in dogs
Excessive drooling is one of the signs of a focal seizure in dogs.
Symptoms of Epilepsy in Dogs

There are two types of epileptic seizures:

  • Focal seizures: affect one half of the brain
  • Generalized seizures: affect the entire brain

When the seizure occurs in just one half of the brain, the signs of epilepsy in dogs that owners need to be aware of include:

  • Facial twitches
  • Blinking
  • Repeated contraction of muscles
  • Head shaking
  • Excessive drooling
  • Dilated pupils
  • Vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Sudden inexplicable fear
  • Attention seeking

For generalized seizures, the symptoms include:

  • Tonic: increased stiffening of muscles lasting for prolonged periods of time
  • Clonic: involuntary muscle contractions
  • Tonic-Clonic: a sequence of both tonic and clonic phases
  • Myoclonic: sudden jerks on either side of the body

At times, a generalized seizure may be atonic. This means that there are no convulsions, and the dog will collapse.

can dogs have epilepsy - what causes epilepsy in dogs
A vet examining an MRI of a dog’s brain.

Diagnosing Epilepsy in Dogs

There is no single test that a veterinarian uses to determine epilepsy. Instead, a “diagnosis of exclusion” is used to rule out each potential causes of a seizure individually. The veterinarian carrying out the diagnosis may split the process into two parts. The first step will be to investigate diseases that live outside of the brain, and the second will explore diseases of the brain itself.

Blood samples, urinalysis, brain imaging using an MRI, and cerebrospinal fluid analysis may all be used to rule out any structural abnormalities in the brain, such as tumors or inflammation. If a dog is young and normally healthy between seizures, primary epilepsy is often the most likely diagnosis for canine seizures.

Epilepsy in Dogs Treatment

There are several anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) used to treat dogs with epilepsy and the veterinarian will prescribe the best option based on the type and frequency of seizure.

Two examples of epilepsy medication for dogs that are commonly prescribed are as follows:

  • Phenobarbital (Pexion)
  • Imepitoin (Libromide)

Most AEDs have side effects. However, these will usually decrease over time. Common side effects include:

  • Lethargy
  • Extreme excitability
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased thirst
  • Increase in urination
  • Weight gain
  • Unsteadiness
epilepsy in dogs treatment - epilepsy medication for dogs
Phenobarbital is one of the anti-epileptic drugs used to treat dogs with epilepsy.

What to Do If Your Dog Has Epilepsy

If a dog has an epileptic seizure, remain calm. Remove any furniture or nearby objects that may harm the dog and gently slide it away from any stairs or other unmovable hazards. Talk to the dog in a calming manner to reassure it and avoid making any sudden loud noises.

Do not get close to the dog’s head or mouth as it may bite, and refrain from putting anything in its mouth. A dog will not choke on its own tongue.

Wherever possible, time the seizure. Prolonged fits can lead to the dog overheating so use a wet towel on its paws to cool it. However, be careful as the dog may accidentally bite.

When a seizure lasts for five minutes or more, the dog becomes unconscious, or the canine has repeated seizures in a short time, seek veterinarian assistance immediately. When a seizure is long, the dog’s temperature and breathing can become problematic, and the risk of brain damage rises. A veterinarian will be able to provide IV medication to help stop the seizure.

Dog Epilepsy Life Expectancy

Although epilepsy is chronic and often progressive, most epileptic dogs have a good quality of life if the condition is properly managed. Generally, dogs that have one seizure will go on to have further fits. However, with early treatment, the long-term outcome is usually better.

Pet owners should know that, even with treatment, a dog may still have seizures. Therefore, owners of an epileptic animal should make sure they know what to do in the event of a fit.

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